Is the Pandemic History Repeating Itself in India?

There is an old saying: “If things are going out of control at present, look at the past." That’s how our ancestors always dealt with tough times
14 May 2021 22:38
Is the Pandemic History Repeating Itself in India?
Cremation grounds in Delhi saw over 700 ‘Covid cremations’ in a day

Influenza Pandemic-1918 also known as ‘Spanish Flu’ was an unusually deadly pandemic which lasted from February 1918 to April 1920.

Spanish flu infected 500 million people—about a third of the world’s population at that time.

The estimated number of deaths ranging from 20 million to a possible high of 100 million makes it one of the deadliest pandemics in the human history.


There are stories documented in the pages of history from the Spanish Flu era (1918-20) which can still be referred to learn a lesson or two.

On 28th September 1918, the Liberty Loan Parade was organized in Philadelphia, USA, to economically support the soldiers who fought in World War I.

Intellectuals opposed the event, they were of the opinion that since the Spanish flu was still going strong; a crowded event may result in a new series of disasters. Ignoring such objections, local administration allowed the event.


It was a matter of patriotism, so more than 200,000 people gathered. What followed was along the expected lines.

Within the next few days, 47,000 fresh cases were reported and 12,000 people lost their lives.

In October 1918, over 195,000 people had lost lives in the US alone.


Close to 100 million died in 1918 Influenza Pandemic. Courtesy, The Gurdian

Close to 100 million died in 1918 Influenza Pandemic. Courtesy, The Guardian

The tragic Indian chapter
Spanish flu struck India at the same time and 10-20 million people, then 3-6 per cent of the population, had died.

The major damage was caused in a short period from June 1918 to early 1919. The second wave of the pandemic lasted for less than three months – but was most devastating.


One of the famous Hindi poet and writer of that era, Suryakant Tripathi Nirala wrote about his personal experience of 1918 pandemic in a book.

The writer famously known as ‘Nirala’ received a telegram message which read “Come back urgently, your wife is seriously ill”.

The writer was in Bengal (province in East India) and he took the next train to his hometown in Uttar Pradesh.


When Nirala reached his hometown which was on the banks of river Ganga, he observed that ‘the River Ganga was swollen with bodies’.

By the time he reached home, his teenage wife was already dead. In the days to follow, all other family members got the infection and died.

Reports from government documents had made similar observation that “all rivers across India were clogged with bodies because of shortage of firewood for cremation”.


History is repeating itself
Looking at images and reports in Indian media this week, it seems nothing has changed even after a century.

Locals in Buxar district of Bihar province reported about floating dead bodies in River Ganga on 9th May.

Similar was the sight in Ghazipur district in Uttar Pradesh province very next day.

The local administration is investigating the cases and performed the last rights of unidentified bodies.


The bodies are suspected to be those of Covid-19 patients who were dumped in the river, revealing the scale of Covid emergency in India. Locals said, following the Hindu cremation rituals, people either burn their dead or immerse the bodies in the river.

Due to the lack of firewood at the crematoriums owing to the rise in Covid-related deaths, the poor immersed them in the river.


These are stray cases and not a common sight across India, but even these isolated cases put a big question-mark on the progress of medical science and human development.

Such incidents depict a real picture of the catastrophe this planet is going through at present.


Social media feeds are full with videos of Covid funerals at crowded cemeteries, wailing relatives of the dead outside hospitals, long queues of ambulances carrying gasping patients, mortuaries overflowing with the dead, and patients, sometimes two to a bed, in corridors and lobbies of hospitals.


There are endless emotional and tragic stories which will make anyone cry.

On May 10th, neighbours found an eight year old girl sitting alone and crying in a house in South Delhi, as she woke up in the morning, she found her grandmother dead who was Covid patient in home-quarantine.

Girl’s parents and grandfather had died two weeks ago in hospital and there was no one in the city to take care of the young child.

Patients at critical stage with Oxygen level as low as 70% are travelling by road for over eight hours holding tiny-portable Oxygen cylinders in hand, looking for ICU beds in smaller towns.

This is the plight of all the cities in north and west India.



What went wrong?
In early March, politicians and parts of the media believed that India was truly out of the woods.

While customary guidance on Covid-appropriate behaviour was issued, it was policymakers and elected leaders who tacitly encouraged crowding in festivals, election rallies and religious congregation (Kumbh Mela).

In less than a month, things began to unravel.


The second wave of Covid-19 has come a few months after the second wave in other countries, there was no reason to believe it would be any different in India or in any other country.

Indian leadership was also late in realising the importance of genome sequencing of the new variant.

Genome studies are very important for the management of the epidemic.


More than ventilators and ICU beds, what was essential was an adequate supply of oxygen in hospitals to treat critically ill patients. Nonetheless, when the second wave of the pandemic arrived, India’s medical oxygen supply network collapsed.

Availability of hospital beds was no-where close to meet the sudden demand.

WHO standard is 30 hospital beds per 10,000 people; India has only 5.3, much less compared to even smaller countries like Fiji 20, New Zealand 25.7, Australia 38.4 and South Korea 124.


India recorded a worrying test positivity ratio (TPR) of 22.36% in the end of second week of May which is way above the 5% TPR needed to control the pandemic, as prescribed by WHO. Only rampant testing could track and isolate positive cases, but curiously, India’s testing numbers seem to be dipping instead of keeping pace with the rate of transmission.


Battle is far from over
Experts are raising concerns that inoculation is not helping turn the tide in some places.

Of the Seychelles, Israel, the UAE, Chile and Bahrain—respectively the world’s five most vaccinated countries—only Israel is not fighting to contain a dangerous surge in Covid-19 infections.


Seychelles, which has vaccinated more of its population against Covid-19 than any other country, saw active cases more than double in the end of first week of May. 37% of the new Covid positive cases have received two doses of vaccine although mortality rate is zero among the vaccinated cases.


Over 300,000 people in the Maldives had received at least one dose of a vaccine and 35% of the population had received two.

Tiny Indian Ocean country is famous for its luxury beach resorts where cases have also shot up. Active cases jumped to 12,000 plus on May 12.


The world is at war with Covid; more than 3 million people have lost their lives so far.

But while some countries move forward with vaccination campaigns and business reopening, a resurgence in India and South America is a stark reminder of the pandemic’s severe and ongoing toll. Society’s staggered return towards “normal” also begs the question of what we will learn when this once-in-a-century pandemic is finally over and how the 3 million lives lost (and counting) will be remembered in the future.

None of us shall forget it because we’ve all lived through it, and we’ll keep it within our psyche so that the next time something like this comes along we’re better prepared.


Jai Kumar Sharma is Consultant Editor of Fiji Sun, based in New Delhi

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